This is the second post in my series about Origen and “Adam.”

Today Origen is widely recognized in both the Western and Eastern branches of the Church as one of Christianity’s great early thinkers, even if some of the details of his protology and eschatology remain suspect, or at least subject to historical dispute.[1]  However, several problems confront anyone who seeks to understand “Origen’s view” of Adam, sin, and the Fall.

First, like all of the early Church Fathers, Origen did not produce a definitive “systematic theology” treatise.[2]  Origen is, of course, recognized as one of the first “systematic” Christian thinkers because of his effort to produce a sustained, philosophically and Biblically integrated argument in his treatise On First Principles, from which these posts will draw heavily.  Much of what we know today about Origen’s thought, however, is derived from more occasional, less systematic sources, in particular his extensive Biblical commentaries and homilies.  As Peter Bouteneff has argued, Origen’s theology primarily was an exercise in Biblical exegesis in conversation with the Church’s experience with Christ and the Rule of Faith.[3]

A second problem is that the textual tradition for some of Origen’s key writings sometimes is ambiguous.  For some key writings, such as his Commentary on Genesis, only isolated fragments survive.  For other key writings, such as On First Principles, there is a Latin translation by Rufinus that might gloss some potentially heterodox passages, and some Greek fragments preserved in the Philocalia that may or may not always be faithful to the lost original Greek text.[4]

A third problem is a significant reason for the textual issues: some of Origen’s ideas, which were controversial even in his lifetime, were seemingly anathematized by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 C.E. upon the urging of the Emperor Justinian, about three hundred years after Origen’s death.[5]  The circumstances leading up to the anathemas included numerous intellectual and political disputes and intrigues between “Origenist” and “anti-Origenist” schools that developed after Origen’s death.  There is considerable question today about whether the concepts condemned at the Second Council of Constantinople could really be fairly traceable unalloyed to Origen himself.[6]  The result is that Origen’s intellectual legacy is somewhat obscured.

These three problems suggest that we cannot truly claim to know “what Origen thought” about Adam, sin and the Fall.  We cannot cite Origen as some sort of counter-authority to Augustine, even if an argument from authority in this context could otherwise be valid.  What we can do is peek into the workings of this great early Christian mind for insights that might help us make sense of these questions today.  We’ll start to do that in the next post.


[1] See, e.g., Hans Urs von Balthasar, Origen:  Spirit and Fire, trans. Robert J. Daly, S.J. (Washington D.C.: Catholic Univ. of America Press 1984), 1 (stating that “[i]t is all but impossible to overestimate Origen and his importance for the history of Christian thought”); Pope Benedict XVI, Great Christian Thinkers:  From the Early Church Through the Middle Ages (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press 2011), 19-25 (stating that Origen was one of the most “remarkable” and “crucial” figures in the history of Christian thought).

[2] For a good discussion of the nature and sources of Origen’s corpus, see von Balthasar, Origen:  Spirit and Fire, 1-23.

[3] Bouteneff, Beginnings, 94-96.  For a good discussion on debates in contemporary Origen scholarship about how to read Origen, see Wilson,Origen.

[4] von Balthasar, Spirit and Fire, 21-22; Bouteneff, Beginnings, 95.

[5] An English translation of the Acts of the Second Council of Constantinople is available at

[6] For a discussion of this history, see Wilson, Origen, 64-66.